Acqua Alta, by Donna Leon

I like this series by Donna Leon. Set in Venice, they are police procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. In this one, an American archeologist is savagely beaten. Brett Lynch splits her time between her flat in Venice where she lives with her partner Flavia Petrelli, a successful opera singer, and the site in Xian, China where the terra cotta warriors are being unearthed. Brunetti recognises her name in a police report, having met her some years previously, and undertakes the investigation. Murder ensues, and much suspense, heightened by the onset of the seasonal high waters that flood the piazzas and lower floors.

One of the things I like about these books is the way Leon presents the whole of Brunetti's life, not just his work on the case and interactions with his co-workers, but also chats with his wife, cooking dinner, sorting out his children's problems, meeting friends for drinks. She manages to insert these scenes in such a way that they maintain, and sometimes even increase the suspense.

The characters in Leon's books are always well-drawn, even the minor characters. I particularly enjoyed seeing more of Sergeant Vianello and learning more about Signorina Elettra's background. She is the amazingly competent and resourceful secretary to Brunetti's superior, Dottor Patta. I also admired the way Signor La Capra and his son Salvatore, who could so easily have been simple stereotypes, come to life in this story.

Coincidentally, I recently saw the exhibit of terra cotta warriors at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. with my friend Laura. The warriors themselves were much larger than I'd envisioned and more varied. One of the docents explained that a new site had been found recently by a farmer and was in the process of being excavated. The new site is at some distance from the original tomb, so now they have widened their search for additional sites. With this background, I was not surprised that Brett was still actively working the site in Xian and could picture the artifacts to which she refers.

Such synchronicity always enhances my reading; I love when a book turns out to be set in a place where I have been or refers to something familiar like the terra cotta warriors. When my friend Cynthia was last in Venice, she encountered the acqua alta, though luckily not any murderers, and I well remember her account of the boards set up in the piazzas and the chilling cold. The water is ever-present in this book: the canals, the rain in Venice that inspired one of my favorite pieces of music, and the rising tides that drag at your feet and pour in over the tops of your boots.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book covers recently. This one, which shows the Basilica of San Marco reflected in a swirling puddle, accurately mirrors the content of the book but is confusing. If I hadn’t already been a fan of the series, the cover would not have enticed me to pick up the book.

The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

An inhabitant of Three Pines dies during a séance and Inspector Gamache must decide if the cause is fright, evil spirits, or murder. This is the third book set in the small village just south of Montreal, and the familiar characters are back again. In the first book Still Life we were introduced to Gamache and his team, including the surly agent Yvette Nichol, and the charming and eccentric inhabitants of Three Pines, many of whom are artists. The villagers reminded me of the characters in Martha Grimes's mystery series.

In the second book A Fatal Grace we learned a more about Gamache's political struggles within the force. In this sense, the book began to remind of Donna Leon's excellent mystery series set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, one of whose main attractions is watching Brunetti negotiate the labyrinthine politics of the Venetian police force. However, I felt that the political aspect didn't mesh well with the humorous shenanigans of the eccentric village characters. Also, I was disappointed that the characters were not more complex.

In spite of my disappointment, I selected this third book because so many people gave it favorable reviews, some even calling it the best book they'd read all year. Also, that first book showed so much promise that I wanted to give the series another try.

Penny's prose is easy to read: her sentences are lovely, and the pacing is very good. However, the story didn't engage my attention. The characters continue to be one-dimensional; none of them drew me in and made me live inside the story. Also, the addition of supernatural elements—a witch, a couple of séances, a malevolent house—to an already uneasy stew of eccentric village characters and political machinations made it hard to know how to feel about the story.

Writing a series of books featuring the same set of characters allows the author unusual scope to develop those characters over time. For example, it's been very interesting to observe the changes in Dalziel and Pascoe in Reginald Hill's series, both their personal changes and the changes in their relationship.

However, a series also presents some pretty serious challenges. Along with character development, there has to be enough background to remind or inform readers of who the characters are and what has happened previously, without giving away important plot points from previous books and without boring the reader who is very familiar with the series. Laura Lippman and Nevada Barr do a good job of this. Also, in a non-mystery series, J.K. Rowling does an amazing job of sneaking in the necessary information from previous books, which is ironic since most of her fans have the earlier books memorized anyway.

Here, the reminders of details from Penny's earlier books are worked in very well. I wish the characters were more interesting and the tone more consistent. On the other hand, many people loved this book, so perhaps it is just a question of personal taste.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

I first saw the film The Bad Seed when I was 10 or 11 and didn’t quite know what to make of it. Was it possible that people could be born bad? For weeks I pondered questions of fate and free will, thinking too about the myths and legends I’d read: Oedipus destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Sleeping Beauty ordained from birth to prick her finger on a spindle.

Home retells the events of Robinson’s earlier book Gilead (which I blogged about in February) from the point of view of Glory, daughter of John Ames’s great friend Boughton and sister of the ne’er-do-well Jack. As the story opens, Glory has returned to Gilead to care for her elderly father who is nearing the end of his life. Then one day Jack, from whom they have heard not a word for decades, suddenly turns up, graceful, shabby, hungover.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Jack. The people of Gilead think that he was born bad, given the things he got up to when he was a boy. Ames sees Jack as a rogue, with a rakish self-confidence, who is a disruptive influence on Ames’s family. Glory sees Jack as broken and lonely, disgusted with himself, and inexpressibly weary.

I know people like him: smart, talented, charismatic, the golden child, yet somehow never quite succeeding in life, ending up existing on the fringes of society. It is not an easy thing, forging your own path instead of following the wide, paved road dictated by society. The stereotype is that such a person is a criminal or an addict, hating himself, just as Glory sees Jack. But I have known more than one lone wolf who is happy with his or her life, who still believes the benefits of going your own way outweigh the costs. Society may aver that they would be happier married, with two children and a dog, working 9-5 to pay the mortgage on a house behind a white picket fence, but they know better.

Glory is the one who wants all that, but seems destined never to have it. She longs for children and her own home, which she envisions as a modern cottage full of light and air. However, she is amazingly patient with her father, whose increasing demands and combination of irritation and sentimentality will be only too familiar to those who have dealt with aging parents or geriatric patients.

Jack and Glory are not the only characters I found myself sympathising with. Just as Ames’s worried about how his wife and young son would manage after his death, so Boughton’s last days are tormented by worry about Jack.

I liked this book better than Gilead though I missed Ames’s voice and his appreciative and positive view of the world. I’m still left with the impression of secrets unrevealed, revelations withheld. I have my own ideas of what they may be, but will leave you to discover your own.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Was it just last week I said I was tired of male coming-of-age stories? This month’s pick for one of my book clubs, Diaz’s book hooked me with its unusual and refreshing voice. It’s the story not just of Oscar but of his whole family: his mother Beli who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, his sister Lola, even his grandfather Abelard. Narrated by Lola’s boyfriend Yunior, their life in Paterson, New Jersey, fizzes across the page, full of the humiliations that overweight, RPG-playing Oscar must endure, the power that adolescent Lola finds, and the melodramatic scenes their mother enacts. The family is convinced that they suffer under a curse, a fuku that dooms all of their endeavours to failure.

Sure enough, each undergoes trials that bring them nearly to the end of reason. One or another retreats back to DR, taking refuge with La Inca, Abelard’s now-elderly cousin who had rescued and raised Beli. Dropping into the lives of Lola, Beli and Abelard rescued the book for me from being simply a boy’s coming-of-age story, though Oscar’s story even with its familiar adolescent-boy concerns was interesting enough to stand alone, given Yunior’s spirited narration.

Some people in my book club found the book hard to read, distracted by the frequent and untranslated Spanish phrases or put off by the occasional footnotes explaining in sometimes hilarious detail the historical or political background to some Dominican event or personage. None of that bothered me. Carried along by the raucous and witty voice of Yunior, I felt as though I had plunged into these lives that carry the weight of their country’s history, a country about which I’d known very little.

Curiously, I did agree with those in my book club who said they did not seem to care about the characters; they didn’t find themselves fretting over the characters’ bad choices or grieving over their fates as one does when truly caught up in a novel. I, too, was entertained without my emotions being particularly engaged. I’m not sure why that is. I felt that I didn’t really know Oscar and his family, which was only to be expected since Yunior did not really know them. In fact, the progression of the book is not only the events of their lives, but also Yunior’s coming to understand their significance and the family themselves. Yet, Yunior himself is not even a character for most of the book, just a shadow, an absent narrator. And Lola narrates her own section, another curious choice. She too has a wonderful voice, saying of her mother: “She stood like she was her own best thing . . .”.

These structural oddities are precisely what continue to interest me, even after the echoes of that marvelous voice have faded. I’ve certainly read many stories where the narrator is not actively a part of the story and many where he or she is, but I cannot think of another one where the narrator is peripheral to the story for part of the book and then actively present in the rest. Like the footnotes and the many allusions, these oddities and not knowing what to expect next kept me turning pages. I certainly recommend this book as a most unusual reading experience.